Taking no chances, Ros-Lehtinen hits Democratic rival with TV ads

Scott Fuhrman, left, is challenging Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, right.
Scott Fuhrman, left, is challenging Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, right.

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen debuted a pair of hard-hitting television ads Wednesday slamming her Democratic challenger, Scott Fuhrman, as untrustworthy because of his criminal driving record.

One spot centers on the father of a 16-year-old girl killed by a drunk driver. The other features the retired Miami-Dade County police sergeant who responded to the girl’s 2000 death. Though Fuhrman was not involved, both show an illustration of Fuhrman behind bars.

“My 16-year-old daughter, Helen Marie Witty, was killed by a drunk driver on Red Road,” John Witty says into the camera. “Now another drunk driver, Scott Fuhrman, wants to be in Congress, even after also being convicted of possessing a firearm while intoxicated. Less than three years ago, he fled on foot from a hit-and-run on U.S. 1.”

Retired Sgt. David Greenwell, who introduces himself “as a 33-year police veteran and 16 years as a supervisor in traffic homicide,” delivers a similar message.

“I don’t trust Scott Fuhrman in Congress,” he says.

Ros-Lehtinen is not considered one of the most vulnerable Florida Republicans in Congress, though her redrawn 27th district now leans Democratic. But Fuhrman, who runs his family juice-bottling business in Allapattah, is well-heeled enough to run more than a token opposition campaign. He sent plenty of fliers ahead of the Aug. 30 primary, which he won easily, and has hammered Congress for inaction on the Zika virus.

So Ros-Lehtinen’s reelection campaign chairman — her husband, former Miami U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen — said he didn’t want to take chances. He did some of the research into Fuhrman himself, though Fuhrman, in an unusual move, had released his rap sheet himself when he launched his candidacy in June.

“Never ignore your opponent’s record,” Lehtinen told the Miami Herald on Wednesday, reciting axioms he’s learned in politics. “And never ignore your opponent’s money.”

The ads, which focus on Fuhrman’s most serious arrests, are also airing in Spanish.

In a statement, Fuhrman compared Ros-Lehtinen’s strategy to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s, saying both are “ignoring the issues in favor of political games and personal attacks.” Ros-Lehtinen has said she won’t vote for Trump.

“I’m not proud of my past but I’ve been honest with the voters about the mistakes I’ve made,” Fuhrman said. “Ros-Lehtinen’s desperate, personal attacks demonstrate just how scared she is to run on her three-decade record in Congress.”

In an unexpected twist, Fuhrman also disclosed he knows Witty, the father in Ros-Lehtinen’s ad, and offered the family condolences in person 16 years ago, when Helen Marie died. Her death as she was rollerblading in a bike path, shocked the South Florida community.

“I cannot imagine the pain the Witty family lives with every day, and I’m disappointed that Ros-Lehtinen would abuse their grief over their daughter’s unrelated death in a personal political attack on me,” Fuhrman said.

Dexter Lehtinen said the campaign was approached by law-enforcement friends who know families of drunk-driving victims about pushing back against Fuhrman’s candidacy.

In 2009, when Fuhrman was 27, he was arrested in Colorado and charged with driving under the influence and prohibited use of a weapon, after police found a loaded handgun in the car. Fuhrman pleaded guilty, paid a fine and performed community service. Fuhrman favors gun control and has said he no longer drinks alcohol.

In 2013, Fuhrman was charged with leaving the scene of an accident after he crashed into the back of a truck on U.S. 1 and left on foot. The charge was dismissed because Fuhrman wasn’t properly read his Miranda rights.

Lehtinen said he was particularly incensed by Fuhrman’s assertion that he messed up as a young man — as if the incidents had taken place long ago.

“He says, ‘I’ve changed.’ Well, that’s less than three years ago,” Lehtinen said. “He was 31.”

Campaigns often leave attacks to staffers or outside political groups. But a somber Ros-Lehtinen appears on screen approving both negative ads. And her husband made no secret the campaign intends to keep trying to define Fuhrman as a troubling character.

In the Herald interview, Lehtinen questioned why Fuhrman, who graduated from the University of Miami’s law school, never registered with the Florida Bar. He also noted Fuhrman was kicked off his two-year term on city of South Miami’s Planning and Zoning Board after skipping three consecutive meetings.

Fuhrman said he sat for the two-part bar exam in February 2012 and passed the multi-state portion but failed the Florida portion. He took the Florida portion again a year later — as “moral support” for his wife, who was taking it for the first time — and flunked again. His wife, Lindsay, passed. A record released by Fuhrman’s campaign back in June shows the bar was still collecting documents for Fuhrman’s open application in May 2014.

He said he never meant to practice as an attorney: “I knew, even as a boy, that I would follow in the footsteps of my father and grandfather, and help run our family’s juice business.”

He blamed getting booted off the South Miami board on a misreading of the city’s code: Fuhrman missed a special meeting that shouldn’t have counted against him, according to a statement his campaign offered from Mayor Philip Stoddard.

Fuhrman noted he previously served a full term on the city’s budget and finance committee.

“I remain an active member of the South Miami community and look forward to representing our City of Pleasant Living in Congress.”